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Prizefighting: The Family Man

4 minute read

He is probably the best fighter, pound for pound, in the world—the perfect picture of destruction with his 42-in. chest, 26-in. waist, and smoothly lethal muscles. He can hit as hard as a drop hammer, and his hands are quick enough to pluck a fly in midair. But Welterweight Emile Griffith, 26, is a reluctant champion.

“I never wanted to be a fighter,” he says. “I wanted to be a baseball player. This is a funny business. The guy you’re hitting hasn’t done anything to you, but you have to hit him anyway.” Three years ago, Griffith lost his temper in the ring—when Benny Paret noted Emile’s tight pants and his singsong Virgin Islands speech and questioned his masculinity. Paret died of brain injuries in that fight, and Griffith has brooded ever since over the massacre. “I try to think it was fate,” he says. “I try real hard. But I always know that I was the guy Benny was boxing.”

“You’re Lazy!” The ghost of Benny Paret obviously was still with Champion Griffith last week. Madison Square Garden was packed with fans from Spanish Harlem to watch Griffith defend his crown against Challenger José Stable and Puerto Rico’s José Torres battle Willie Pastrano for the light-heavyweight championship in a rare doubleheader. Like Paret, Stable was a Cuban, and the chants started—”Sta-ble! Stable! Sta-ble!”—as soon as the challenger clambered into the ring. Emile got mostly boos except from ringside, where Mama Emelda Griffith and Cousin Bernie led the cheers. “The best, the best, the best!” shouted Bernie, as Griffith buckled Stable’s knees with a right cross in the very first round. “Go get him, Champ!” screamed Mama, as he smashed Stable with a left hook in the fourth, and saliva sprayed all across the ring.

Time after time a single punch would have put the Cuban down for the count. Each time Griffith held back—as if afraid of his own strength. “You’re lazy!” screamed Manager Gil Clancy. “Fight! Move! Fight!” Sure, Griffith was piling up points, but Clancy was still not satisfied. “You never know about officials,” he said darkly. Once Stable threw a punch after the bell, and for an instant Emile’s face contorted with rage —but then he trotted meekly to his corner. The referee scored it 11-4; the other two officials made it unanimous for his eighth title defense. In his dressing room Griffith listened to the crowd roar as Torres pounded out a TKO victory over the aging Pastrano. “Stable was nervous, scared.” Griffith said, “I could have knocked him out. But I’m satisfied.”

“How Is Franklin? At last the money was right: his night’s work earned Griffith $70,000. He needed every penny. At 26, he supports his mother, two cousins, three brothers, four sisters and five nieces, all of whom live in a 10½-room, $50,000 house in Queens that Emile bought four years ago. Of course that doesn’t leave room for Griffith, so he rents an apartment in New Jersey. He cheerfully pays all the bills, and he telephones home at least once a day —even from places like Rome, Vienna and Hawaii. “I want to know every little thing that’s happening with my family,” he says. “How is Franklin doing, I want to know. And Gloria and Eleanor and Joyce, have they met nice boys to marry? And Winston, how is he? And Cousin Bernie — who has operations on his right eye — how is he feeling? And the dogs — are they behaving?”

Griffith’s generosity worries his co-manager Howard Albert, owner of a ladies’ hat factory where Emile worked — as a “feeder” for the assembly line —before he took up fighting. Emile has a “spending problem,” says Albert. He’s made close to $750,000 in 50 fights, and he’s spent it, on other people. Griffith shrugs. After all, he does own a 1965 Lincoln, “a lot of clothes,” and 15 pairs of shoes. “I’m all right,” he says. “And I enjoy taking care of the family.”

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